From sparking powerful solar storms to causing forest fires, know the dangers of solar winds

Solar winds have been associated with solar storms, but recent studies also point out their involvement in large forest fires. Know the threats of this stellar wind and the different ways it impacts us.

| Updated on: Nov 14 2023, 11:12 IST
geomagnetic storm
Solar winds are the plasma-like solar particles and magnetic fields that can spark solar storms, trigger forest fires, impact spacecraft, and more. (NOAA)
geomagnetic storm
Solar winds are the plasma-like solar particles and magnetic fields that can spark solar storms, trigger forest fires, impact spacecraft, and more. (NOAA)

Solar winds have been part of the reason behind the recent series of solar storms that have struck the Earth in the last couple of weeks. They either sparked solar storm incidents or amplified an active storm. But often, we tend to overlook its potential to cause damage when compared to solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CME). However, as per NASA officials and research papers, these stellar winds are capable of not only sparking solar storms but also triggering forest fires, and damaging spacecraft, potentially putting the lives of astronauts in danger.

What are solar winds?

Solar winds are not winds since space is entirely vacuum and air does not exist there. These ‘winds' are powerful waves of plasma that are created in the corona of the Sun. They contain both solar particles as well as strong magnetic fields, according to NASA. Due to the extremely fast rotation speed of the Sun, the plasma winds up near the polar region, from where it escapes along the outwardly projecting magnetic field lines of the Sun and surrounds it in a sheath-like structure.

Solar winds can cause forest fires, claims study

According to a study published on PubMed, some particular forest fires could be associated with solar winds striking the planet. The study analyzed forest fires in Europe, particularly in Spain and Portugal in 2005, and found that “in every concrete situation, an emission of strong electromagnetic and thermal corpuscular energy from highly energetic regions that were in geo-effective position had preceded the fires”.

While the research did maintain its inability to prove with certainty that solar winds were responsible for the forest fires, it mentioned, “There is a strong causality relationship between solar activity and the ignition of these forest fires taking place in South-western Europe”.

What NASA says about solar winds

In 2019, Dr. Nicola “Nicky” Fox, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, NASA, spoke about the dangers of solar winds to spacecraft and astronauts. Back then she was the division director for heliophysics and in a post, highlighted the effects of solar winds, explaining that the use of aluminum acts as a shield that protects the spacecraft from the impact of the charged particles. Highlighting the danger that still lurks, she added, “But there are also faster particles that travel at 80% of the speed of light, which can cause havoc with parts of a spacecraft. They can smash into and damage solar panels, disrupt electronics, or affect electric currents that flow along power grids”.

NASA says that knowing more about the effects of the solar wind is not only important to those of us who live on Earth. It will be critical to know how to mitigate its effects once astronauts travel back to the Moon and beyond for extended periods, especially considering how the Indian Space and Research Organization (ISRO)'s Chandrayaan-4 and NASA's Artemis 3 missions are expected to carry astronauts to Moon.

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First Published Date: 14 Nov, 11:12 IST